In 1978, Britain had proposed a large-scale exhibition of Indian antiques, something that had been done only once before, in 1947-48, immediately after Independence. After her post-Emergency re-election in 1980, Indira Gandhi, as recommended by her cultural adviser Pupul Jayakar, widened the scope, wanting to showcase “modern” India’s artistic achievements as well. The “Festival of India” (FoI) was thus born.
Conceptualised as a galaxy of events that would include art, sculpture, dance, music, poetry, cinema, theatre, science, crafts, food and more, the first FoI was held in Britain in 1982, followed by editions in subsequent years in the US and France (1985-86), the erstwhile Soviet Union (1987-88), Japan (1988), Germany, Sweden, and China.
Also read: 1984: First TV soap ‘Hum Log’ aired
The festivals were designed to not just exhibit India’s past in the form of sculptures and manuscripts but also its achievements in the contemporary age, thus creating a rich smorgasbord of experiences. There were scientific and technological shows, literary symposiums, and educational programmes. Shops, local communities, restaurants, and cultural centres participated. Radio and TV shows featured the festival. Schools and universities attended in large groups.
The FoIs were organised under broad heads such as Design, Craft, Textiles, Photography, and Cinema, and were planned by a National Advisory Committee headed by the Prime Minister, with eminent personalities representing their respective fields. They were executed by a special cell set up under the Culture Ministry.
Also read: India at 75: Epochal moments from the 1980s
As much as the FoIs have been criticised for being pointless pageantry besides incorporating ‘culture as an arm of diplomacy’, they did serve two ends: first, they gave one of the first global platforms to some of India’s best and brightest; and second, they were the first attempts to present India through Indian eyes, an important enterprise for a nation freshly emerged from colonisation.